H.J. Res 57 – Repealing Regulations on School Accountability Plans

2/7/17 – 10:08 PM

Earlier tonight, as expected, the House passed H.J. Res. 57. For the first time in the House on a major piece of legislation, every single Democrat who voted held the line against Trump and the Republicans. That’s right, Rep. Henry Cuellar voted with his caucus for the first time this session. Final vote on passage was 234-190, which is in line with most of the margins you’ll see this year. With the exception of Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania, every Republican voted for it, and as I mentioned every Democrat voted against.

The bill now moved on to the Senate.

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My mother was a teacher for more than four decades. Aside from a brief, ironic stint in Catholic high school, I’m a product of public schools. I went to a University that excelled at producing teachers, and am friends with dozens of them. My two girls have attended three different public elementary schools in two dramatically different state education systems. My wife used to work as an educational policy analyst in the North Carolina governor’s office.

And yet, when it comes to education policy, I know very little.

So, with Congressional votes coming any day regarding Obama administration education regulations and an impending vote at any hour for likely Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, this is as good a time as any to dive into what exactly is going on.

In case you’re wondering why people’s eyes glaze over when trying to decipher Congress, House Joint Resolution 57 is officially titled “Providing for Congressional Disapproval Under Chapter 8 of Title 5, United States Code, of the Rule Submitted to the Department of Education Relating to the Accountability and State Plans Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.” All of which is just a fancy way of saying “we’re going to use a seldom-invoked clause to undo something we don’t like because the last guy did it.”

It gets a little tricky, but what the “rule submitted by the Department of Education” did was use the threat of withholding federal money to school systems as leverage to ensure states crafted their educational accountability plans to comply with federal law. The Obama administration wanted to ensure that states were in compliance with something called ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act. That law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2015, and the purpose of the rule is to provide guidance to the states to make sure that they are operating within the bounds of the law while still keeping local flexibility.

This still sounds too vague, so let’s look at the actual text of the regulation:

In particular, the ESSA significantly modified the accountability requirements of the ESEA.  Whereas the ESEA, as amended by the NCLB, required a State educational agency (SEA) to hold schools accountable based solely on results on statewide assessments and one other academic indicator, the ESEA, as amended by the ESSA, requires each SEA to have an accountability system that is State-determined and based on multiple indicators, including, but not limited to, at least one indicator of school quality or student success and, at a State’s discretion, an indicator of student growth

OK, so far so good. The ESSA updated a previous law, ESEA. The ESEA required school accountability based on strictly academic criteria, ESSA altered that criteria to include not only student achievement (are they where they should be) but growth (are they getting better). This was the question Betsy DeVos fudged during her confirmation hearing. She apparently had no clue that this law existed.

What’s also important in this graf is that a lot of this is at the state’s discretion. States are required to submit accountability plans to the federal government, regardless of who’s running it. The specific aspect of the plan at issue here involves how states hold schools (and students) accountable under ESSA – to reiterate, the rule gives additional guidance to states past the vague language of “multiple indicators including, but not limited to.” Getting into the nitty-gritty of it, the rule gives states better flexibility when it comes to how to rate schools, what to do about schools with lots of students who opt out of tests, etc. The whole point of the rule was the increase flexibility and, according to Education Week “address some of the chief complaints about its draft regulations.”

I’ll let them explain what the rule repeal would mean:

If both sets of regulations are overturned, it could have far-reaching consequences. States have been crafting their ESSA accountability plans for several months, and were doing so even before Trump won the election, with the Obama ESSA accountability rules in mind. The Trump administration has already paused the final implementation of the accountability rules from Obama’s Education Department, but without any regulations at all, states will be in limbo and uncertain how exactly to craft state plans that pass muster with a Trump Education Department.

These moves by GOP lawmakers don’t immediately end those ESSA accountability and teacher-prep rules. However, they signal that the Republicans are preparing to do away with them—the next step is a vote in the House and Senate on these resolutions

In other words, more chaos. The less guidance states get from the federal government, the more fragmented our education system becomes, which, of course, has been the goal of Republicans for years. Public education, when it comes right down to it, isn’t something conservatives care about. You only have to look at their near-unanimous approval for Betsy DeVos to understand that. The fact that rolling back these rules – and perhaps eventually the ESSA itself – would cause confusion at the state level only bolsters their anti-public education talking points. It’s too complicated. It’s too cumbersome. It’s failing.

 

 

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